Garden Q + A: How to Harden Off Plants
Happy Monday! We are back from a short break this past week because we were finally able to plant outside. It was incredible. What a long week! It really feels more like three; we have learned the true meaning of farming: Wait, wait, wait, wait... Do three months of work in less than three days! Ha! Thankfully, while produce, flowering trees, and perennial plants are currently marked as two weeks behind normal schedule we planned ahead enough to be ready for harvests in June. Super thankful to have spent hours over the early months of the year trying my hardest to math out the farm - math is not my most favorite thing to do!
BUT, a big part of why our transplants seem to have a healthy start in the garden is because I harden them off. How do you harden off plants? It's one of those topics that has very little information about it on the internet and even in most gardening books. It is the action of preparing your plants for going outside into full sun, high winds, rain, bugs, and soil. Think of it this way: your plants have been living in a controlled environment for months with a constant supply of water, nutrients, warmth, and light. Now they must face the elements without any help - it's no wonder they go through somewhat of a shock!
Hardening off your plants before putting them into the ground is a good way to make sure that transplant shock doesn't happen. Here's where the water gets murky. How exactly do you do that? It's really just a simple trial and error of playing plant-musical-chairs. You can make it as complicated or as simple as you like. For me, I have found that it's better to take things slow and plan on bringing your plants in and out of the house/greenhouse for about a week's worth of time before they go into the soil. If that sounds like a lot of work, remember that you just spent months of time and effort trying to grow those things! You don't want to go through the sinking feeling that is watching your plants shrivel up in the sun from over exposure. They just need a few days to adjust!
Here is the schedule that I follow:
- Day 1: Bring plants outside in the early morning. Place them in full sun or dappled sunlight. Let them sit for a 2-4 hours, then bring inside. Make sure to check up on them in case of wilting or sun burn. Keep their soil moist!
- Day 2: Repeat Day 1, but leave them outside for 4-6 hours.
- Day 3: Repeat Days 1 and 2, but leave them outside for 6-10 hours.
- Day 4: Bring the plants back outside, and if the weather is warm enough (above 50° F) then leave them outside all night.
- Day 5-6: If weather permits, transplant! They are ready to go into the ground. Ideally you'll want to do this on an overcast day or even the day after a light rain. I find that plants do much better if the soil is a little moist before going in.
You will want to make sure that your plants stay well hydrated through this process. I have forgotten about them on more than one occasion only to come back to find wilted and shriveled babies. No good! Keep a watering can nearby to remind yourself. You may also have an issue with critters getting into your plants, but I don't seem to have this problem often. If you are concerned with your pet cat or pup, put them up high and out of reach. If there are strong winds, try to keep them out of it for the first few days. It may be too hard on their fragile stems!
Don't forget that when plants are young and still small, they need lots of tender care. I always try to tell myself, especially after carrying out the 30th tray of kale, that I spent a lot of energy, money, and time growing these things! I need to listen to what they need. Watch closely and try to figure out how they are reacting to their new environment. With patience, you will do just fine!